I was a wide-eyed five-year old sitting no more than an arm’s length from the television every Sunday. It was 2000 and I hadn’t watched an NFL football game until my dad said that I may enjoy the Eagles, and I fell in love. Captivated by the strength and speed of Donovan McNabb, mesmerized by Jimmy Johnson’s impenetrable defense and infatuated with the franchise’s winning ways I became a fan in an instant and remain so to the day. But in the last decade being an Eagles fan has turned from a pleasurable experience into a full time job. Success has not been scarce as the team has played in four NFC Championships and a Super Bowl since 2000, yet it has been an era of Philadelphia football characterized by missed opportunities and unfulfilled expectations above all else.
So what has changed in twelve years? Well for starters, a lot has. After a Super Bowl loss to the Patriots in 2004, Terrell Owens made his presence felt by stripping McNabb of his confidence before tearing the organization in two. As a result, the front office has strayed from their usual tendencies with hopes of regaining success, which has led to the uncharacteristic additions of Asante Samuel, Ronnie Brown, Ernie Sims and most notably Michael Vick. And of course the Birds’ defense has not been near the same since the death of beloved coordinator Jimmy Johnson in July of 2009.
Yet amidst the constant change there has always been one constant, since as long as I’ve watched the Eagles Andy Reid has been the team’s head coach. But after a dismal 4-12 season Reid has been fired and has signed with the Kansas City Chiefs, and the Eagles search for the heir to his position.
Now is the customary time to assess Reid’s tenure in Philadelphia, and decide how the portrait of his legacy should be painted. I will preface my thoughts on Reid by saying that I have always been a rare, generally positive Philadelphia sports fan. I have done my best over the years to both root for and defend the athletes and coaches who have been hated by a ruthless sports town, namely Pat Burrell, Donovan McNabb, Andre Iguodala and most importantly at this moment, coach Andy Reid.
In lieu of my announced allegiance to Philadelphia underdogs I will start by singing Reid’s praises. It is no secret that he is one of the most scrutinized figures in Philadelphia sports history, and that a cult following that questions his every move has formed. But through the consistent adversity Reid was able to achieve consistent success. He took over an ailing team before the 1999 season and his first act was selecting Donovan McNabb with the second overall pick in the draft. With stud Texas running back Ricky Williams still on the board the city was immediately calling for Reid’s head, but in due time the uproar would recede. Prior to accepting the head coaching job with the Eagles Reid had been the quarterback coach on Mike Holmgren’s heralded Packer staff, and can thus be considered the father of Brett Favre’s Hall of Fame success. In a short period of time, he would take a raw, scrambling quarterback with a rocket arm and make him an All-Pro on a frequent contender. Once responsible for coddling Favre into a cut throat league he harnessed the talents of McNabb and the two became a winning, yet infamous pair.
From 2000 to 2009, Reid and McNabb were the faces of the best team in the National Football Conference. In 2001 the team would go to its first of four straight NFC Championship games, and in 2004 they finally won one before losing to the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXIX. Four years later the Eagles would lose to the Cardinals in another NFC Championship game, the fifth of the Reid era.
As expected, the team also enjoyed tremendous success in the regular season during this stretch. Before the departure of McNabb gave way to the Kevin Kolb (but actually Michael Vick) era in 2010, Reid’s squad had 11 or more wins in six of ten seasons and finished first in the NFC East five times. Even after McNabb left and the quarterback situation went into limbo, a Michael Vick led Eagles team won the NFC East one last time before losing to the Packers in the first round of the playoffs. For a franchise that has never won a Super Bowl, only been to two, and never exactly enjoyed much triumph, five division titles, five NFC Championship game appearances and a Super Bowl loss is a decade for the ages, despite some unfinished business.
Before I delve into Reid’s shortcomings as a head coach, let me back track and distinctly highlight some of his victories on and off the field while in Philadelphia. For starters, the Eagles will never again go to three straight NFC Championship games followed by a Super Bowl, then revive a conceivably finished era with a deep run into the playoffs four years later with a very similar team. Critics of Reid will look at his on field success and deem it incomplete, and their case is both clear and valid. Yet there is no denial that Reid’s tenure in Philadelphia is not only the best in franchise history, but one of the finest in the last fifteen years of NFL football.
Second, he was able to do this all by earning supreme respect by both his players and coaches, which allowed him to surround himself with great coordinators, and teams that would show up every Sunday for him if nothing else. Before his death in 2009, Jimmy Johnson was arguably the best respected defensive coordinator in the game with a blitzing scheme that has proven revolutionary in the modern game. Additionally, Steve Spagnuolo, Brad Childress and John Harbaugh all coached under Reid in Philadelphia before becoming head coaches with other franchises.
Third, as stated above, Reid is heavily responsible for the evolution of Donovan McNabb as a professional quarterback. Coming out of Syracuse McNabb’s s potential ability to compete at the pro level by developing his versatile skill set was frequently put into question. Reid took McNabb’s quick feet, plus size build and power arm, and created a quarterback who could thrive in and out of the pocket as a good decision maker, who posted great QB ratings and completion percentages from year to year. McNabb would make six Pro Bowl appearances as an Eagle and in 2004 (the year the team went to the Super Bowl) he had a regular season QBR of 104.7, throwing for 31 touchdowns and just 8 interceptions.
Lastly, Reid had many opportunities to throw both players and fellow coaches under the bus after the team failed to meet the city’s expectations. In countless post game press conferences the media would pry at him, and try and get him to say that “McNabb’s play didn’t cut it,” “Mornhiweg didn’t make the right call” or “the defense let us down,” but he never gave in. Reid’s reluctance to talk to the Philadelphia media was often perceived as disrespectful by fans and analysts who yearned for him to crack. Disrespectful or not, he showed that leaders point the finger into the mirror more often than they point the finger at those they lead. While his unwillingness to blame anyone but himself made for a disgruntled press, it cultivated sound relationships between him and the rest of the organization above all else.
Now comes the other side of Reid’s legacy that is certainly more familiar to the general public. The fact that will continually define his string of winning records, division titles and playoff appearances is that when the dust settled at the ladder stages of post season play, the Eagles always stood a step behind the NFL elite.
So how could a great coach let his team consistently under perform when the lights shone the brightest? The easy answer to this question is that Reid was simply in over his head. The team got progressively closer to success from 2001 to 2004 until they lost in the Super Bowl, and then would get farther away from winning the crown in each year thereafter with the exception of Jeff Garcia’s improbable playoff run in 2006, and McNabb’s last hurrah in 2008. While the Terrell Owens debacle and the consequent flurry of inappropriate free agent signings had much to do with this, it can also be credited to the rapid changes that Reid’s coaching staff underwent. Brad Childress left to become the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings prior to the 2006 season, Steve Spagnuolo left to become the Giants’ defensive coordinator before the 2007 season, John Harbaugh left to be the Ravens’ head coach before the 2008 season, and defensive coordinator Jimmy Johnson lost his battle with cancer in 2009. The hirings of Childress, Spagnuolo and Harbaugh as head coaches, and the countless offers that Johnson received before his tragic death, are all a testament to the incredible staff that Reid was surrounded with, and it is no coincidence that his success began to quiver once they were all gone.
Reid has often been referred to as a “player coach,” and a “player coach” can certainly achieve good records and playoff success if surrounded by the right people. But Reid proved that his status as a player coach did not entail enough football knowledge to survive without a pristine supporting cast. Childress’s successor was the infamous Marty Mornhiweg (who still has a job with the team), and the play calling and entire offensive game plan greatly suffered with both Mornhiweg and Reid taking the reins at different times. Once known for a three-headed rushing attack and west coast style, the Eagles offense turned into a pass happy unit with an inability to score in the red zone or pick up short yardage in late down situations.
Following Johnson as defensive coordinator, both Sean McDermott and Juan Castillo failed miserably and there is no argument that they lacked the necessary personnel. The only big name that Johnson ever had on his defenses was Brian Dawkins and aside from Dawkins he had a scheme in place that created household names from scratch. An above average head coach is supposed to foster new coordinators through seamless transitions by helping them implement what has worked in the past with their own ideas, yet Reid was unable to do anything of that sort. There is a reason why you never hear guys like Bill Belichick or Mike Shanahan being called “player coaches,” because it is like saying “you did your best” or “you meant well”; a back handed way of saying, “I know you’re trying, but you’re just not getting it.”
Beyond his head coaching duties it is safe to say that Reid’s reign in Philadelphia was a full on dictatorship, and the power he had in the front office is what ultimately led to his downfall. In the early 2000′s Reid had strict tendencies of not signing aging players to contracts, staying away from high value free agents and using the draft to build from the trenches out on both sides of the ball. Prior to the 2004 season, the Eagles signed top free agents Terrell Owens and Jevon Kearse a highly uncharacteristic move by the organization. Although it led to a Super Bowl appearance that year, it was far from beneficial in the long run. Once Owens departed after the 2005 season Reid would spend a couple drafts trying to duplicate the same offensive firepower that was present in the 2004 season. While Jeremy Maclin and Desean Jackson may be top tier wideouts, the team has a non-existent offensive line as a result, something Reid would have never let happen ten years ago.
To build on the notion that Reid changed as the team’s “unofficial” general manager, the team went out and signed Michael Vick to a 2-year contract prior to the 2009 season and would later ink him to a 6-year deal with $40 million dollars guaranteed. Now that we have seen the Reid-Vick era unfold, and unfold quickly, it is safe to say that the Eagles decision to make Vick the franchise quarterback was the worst decision for him and Reid, and it is important to add, the chief reason for the demise of Reid in Philadelphia. In anticipation of the departure of Donovan McNabb, Reid selected Kevin Kolb out of Houston with the 36th pick of the 2007 draft. After Kolb was injured in the 2010 season opener against the Packers, Vick was inserted into the starting role and the organization never looked back, and why they abandoned the quarterback that Reid had initially chosen to replace McNabb will forever be beyond me.
It was unlucky that Vick was unable to stay healthy as the team’s quarterback, but Reid’s offensive decision making never favored his abilities, hurt or not. At this point of his career Michael Vick is still an athlete that can light up a game with his arm and change a game with his legs, but the Eagles have pushed one of the best running backs in football aside, in favor of handing the keys to the spotty quarterback. Vick would have been most effective in Philadelphia as a game manager, utilizing his innate play making ability when needed, but more often deferring to Lesean McCoy and the west coast screen and slant offense that was a staple of the best teams in Eagles’ history. Instead, Reid’s management of Vick led to inconceivable offensive shortcomings and countless injuries for the quarterback. When Vick moves on to achieve success in another franchise, Reid’s incompetency in making scheme and personnel decisions will become apparent one more time.
For myself more than anyone, I have outlined the outward successes, underlying victories, and evident failures of Andy Reid in his time in the City of Brotherly Love. I have done so to try and unearth my final views of him as he takes the job in Kansas City, and I can say that I am still unable to pinpoint a distinct feeling. If I had to make a full on attempt to make a final statement about Reid’s Philadelphia tenure I’d say this:
There is no doubt that Andy Reid coached the most successful era in the history and foreseeable future of Philadelphia football, and for that I strongly commend him. With that being said, the “best era” in Eagles history does not include a Super Bowl victory and that is a result of Reid’s inability to maximize the talent he had and push them over what has proven to be, an unconquerable mountain.
Can I fully commit to supporting a coach whose success will forever be measured by incomplete seasons and irrelevant regular season dominance? I’d be accepting the mediocrity of Andy Reid and through this writing process have deduced that he is indeed mediocre at best. With that, I recognize the prominence of Reid with an understanding that prominence, when attached to Philadelphia football, is used with a weakened definition, and defer from supporting a man who brought unwavering disappointment in an era that could have been so much better.